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Winter Cycling Don't let snow and ice discourage you this winter. The key element to year-round cycling is proper attire! Check out this winter cycling forum to chat with other ice bike fanatics.

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Old 08-22-07, 09:54 AM   #1
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Some questions from a hopeful Chicago winter commuter

Hey all,

I'm currently a 3 season commuter-- really a one season commuter, since Chicago only has two seasons, winter and summer.

In the nice season, I ride a 30 mile round trip commute, all but the last 3/4 mile on the Lakefront MUP.

This year, I'm hoping to push as far as I can into winter, but I've never ridden in snow and ice. I'm a bit less concerned about clothes, which I'm sure I'll figure out through trial and error, than about my bike. I know that winter riding is hard on a bike, but I really don't want to trash my one and only.

I know I could ride a beater, but here's the thing-- some days (if I'm beat, or late, or it is pouring rain, or, I'm imagining, if it is REALLY FREAKING COLD, I cut some miles of the ride by going multi-modal-- bus, el train, or metra commuter rail depending. Thus, I ride a folder-- a Xootr Swift (really nice bike, btw, and fast). (Also fits nicely in a small condo.)

So-- I'm guessing I'm going to need folding capabilities MORE in winter, so my bike is my bike. But I don't want it to be eaten by salt or turn to crap! Any predictions or advice?

Lastly, anyone experienced with Chicago winter commuting, and the Lakefront in particular-- how well cleared is it in Winter? Am I going to need to buy studded tires?

Thanks so much for any advice
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Old 08-22-07, 11:29 AM   #2
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Our conditions here on the south shore of Lake Ontario are very similar to yours on Lake Michigan. Although we have four seasons here: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and July.

Sorting through all the advice here, I rode my first winter last year.

I found that the winter isn't any worse on a bike than the wet. I experienced none of the breakdowns and maintenance disasters frequently predicted around here. Exceptions: My chain and rims wore faster, because they were wet more often, and the wet holds the grit. A brake caliper froze once--it thawed fine. I had no issues whatsoever with shifters, cables, dérailleurs or anything else.

The only extra maintenance I did was to hose the bike down at night if I'd ridden through any appreciable amount of salt or grit (using the shower massage--I live in an apartment and that's the only method I have), park it in front a radiator to dry overnight, and re-oil the chain in the morning.

I found studded tires to be essential. I never had to worry about available traction, with the exception of frozen ruts. They could be challenging if I wanted to travel a different path than the rut. There are certain kinds of snow where the treads would clog up, but it's the same with car snow tires.

However, even when I tried to make it happen, I never once spun a wheel, skidded while braking or slid out in a turn. With the exception of getting trapped in the aforementioned frozen ruts, it was no different than riding in the dry.

On the downside, the snow tires are heavy and harder to pedal. I don't think I'd be up to your 15-mile commute twice a day with them. But I did just fine on our 20-25 mile weekly group rides, so maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit.

On the other hand, a guy down the street with the same bike as mine never bothered with snow tires until he felt shamed into it late in the season. I don't think it made a lot of difference to him. He posts here too, so maybe he'll report.

Last edited by tsl; 08-22-07 at 11:40 AM.
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Old 08-23-07, 07:18 PM   #3
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The biggest thing you need to do is get the right tires for your winter conditions and clean and dry and lube your bike every day when you get home. If you can do this winter is not such a problem. Things just wear out a little faster.
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Old 08-23-07, 07:26 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by creaturely View Post
Hey all,

I'm a bit less concerned about clothes, which I'm sure I'll figure out through trial and error, than about my bike.
You have it backwards. Any old bike will do, as long as it is dependable and efficient to ride. Clothing is VERY important, and while you "may figure it out" it presents the biggest challenge to a new winter rider. After all, staying warm without being hot is the actual challenge of winter riding.

Snow and ice present problems at time, but the cold is always there. Go find a decent hardtail mountain bike and have at it. I don't think a folding bike would be a great idea for Chicago winters. At least I wouldn't want one for here in Kansas.
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Old 08-23-07, 07:32 PM   #5
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I like the security of studded tires, even though they slow you down. Multi-modal is a good option as 15 miles is a good distance in true cold. Hands and feet are the parts to work on keeping warm. The rest is easy to overdress. You get used to starting out cold and getting comfy about a mile or two on your way. No cotton! Wool and/or poly is important. On really cold days (dark mornings and nights, actually), I like clear ski goggles to protect the eyes.

Not sure how bad the salt is in Chicago, but its pretty bad here. I went the route of a full chain case/internal hub, and didn't clean until spring. My biggest concern with a folder would be all the joints that salt could creep into, rusting steel bits and crudding things up. One advantage is that you likely have full cable housings on a folder, which will protect most of the cables. A little WD40 down the housings to keep moisture out is good.

Last winter was my first. Biking through the winter is a great feeling. Good luck.
Nothing says "in good times and in bad" like a good pair of fenders
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Old 08-24-07, 03:52 PM   #6
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If your really serious about this you may consider getting a less expensive folding bike for winter like the Downtube (no suspension model) and converting the rear transmission to internal hub gearing. And then get the right tires. Then you have a bike setup for all occasions.
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Old 08-25-07, 12:18 AM   #7
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As someone who grew up in Chicago and moved to Albany (for the weather, of course *rolls eyes*), I would certainly trade winter cycling in Albany for Chicago's. Yeah it's colder, windier, and there's more snow, but the roads are better maintained and Daley actually gives a crap about bicycles.

If you're a longtime resident, you know that Bilandic's Blizzard ensured that the snow is always cleared. If not, well, wiki for Bilandic.

As for clothing, you don't need insulation so much as you need wind and waterproof. Getting a sweat up will keep you warm, you just have to keep the weather from taking your heat away from you. Trip over to REI and pick up a nice winter shell; I'm in EMS territory, and I picked up a nice jacket a few seasons made of fleece-backed Schoeller WB400 fabric. It's 480-ish grams, for the weight weenies out there, and it's on par with my big Russian greatcoat for winter badassery. When it gets below 20°F I throw a thing Campagnolo hoodie I picked up underneath it to insulate me from the heat conduction and I'm happy again.

I don't think you need studs unless there's heavy ice sheeting, and that's about once a year in my fine hometown. You'll be on municipal roads and paths which are actually funded and maintained.

If you're rolling steel, just keeping it clean will do most of your work for you. Make sure your insides are topped up with Frame Saver, and get busy with the Bike Lust once a week. A low moisture cleaning method like the Bike Lust silicone stuff is going to be your friend. Also, this is the weather that destroys drivetrains, so go ahead and be a little obsessive about drivetrain maintenance. I had a little bright orange surface rust last year on my chain and cog, and a good cleaning has stopped that in its tracks.

You'll be going slower for your effort. Everyone's slower in winter, don't worry about it too much.

Be prepared for your co-workers to think that you are a sexy, sexy God of Winter, though.

EDIT: Also, fenders. You'll get sick of that frozen buttstripe real fast.
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Old 08-30-07, 09:43 PM   #8
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Old 09-19-07, 11:37 AM   #9
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I moved back to Chicago last year and I actually bought a used mountain bike for the winter commuting but I only used it once. I soon realized that the city of Chicago does an excellent job at clearing the streets of snow, slush, and ice. I also had some studded tires that I ended up selling as they were totally unnecessary. I ended up doing all of my winter riding on my 1974 schwinn le tour fixie conversion with 700x32C bontrager race lites off of a trek 520.

Even the lakefront path gets plowed and salted in the winter. The only area of the path that I know doesn't get salted is between oak street and ontario and that is because it would all drain off into the lake. I'd just continue using your folder until you feel you absolutely need something different and my guess is you won't ever feel that you need something different.
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